Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's sixth novel may be his best yet. An ambitious, imaginative tour de force, The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave who escapes from a plantation in Georgia via an actual underground railroad. The novel has achieved almost universal praise since its release and became an Oprah Book Club selection. It's also our September Fiction Top Pick. We gave Whitehead a call to talk about Oprah, historical research, Donald Trump and writing truth vs. fact.

First and foremost, congratulations on the buzz that The Underground Railroad has been receiving! When I checked the Amazon bestseller list earlier today, the only book that is outranking you in Literature & Fiction is the new Harry Potter book, so that must be kind of exciting for you.
Yeah, definitely. There’s no hope of ever beating Harry Potter, but I think the book is doing pretty well. It’s definitely been a crazy week—very happy and gleeful—with everything that’s happened.

Obviously the other big news is that Oprah just announced that she has selected The Underground Railroad for her book club, her first selection in nearly a year and a half. Can you tell me a little bit about how you reacted when you found out that the book had been picked?
It was something that was pretty wild because I had handed in the book four months before, so I wasn’t even thinking about reviews or what would happen to [the book]. But I was doing a reading at Duke University, and I was checking my email on the plane right as it was landing and there was a voicemail from my agent and she just said one word: Oprah.

I immediately started cursing. I was trying not to curse because I was on a plane and people were looking at me, but I couldn’t hold it in. And then that started this whole crazy ride where I couldn’t tell anybody [that she had picked it], and I had to lie to people’s faces . . . when she mentioned [The Underground Railroad] in her magazine in June, and people said to me “Wouldn’t it be great if she picked it?” I was like, “Huh, yeah. But that will never happen, though.” So I’m really glad that the news is finally out there.

Is it weird knowing that now when people Google your name that Oprah’s name comes up in conjunction?
Well, I was a teenager when she first came into the cultural landscape so she’s always been this huge cultural figure to me, and her book club started around the time that I started publishing. But when you’re writing about elevator inspectors, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have a lot of mass appeal. I’ve always loved giving my weird takes on the world and writing books that sound a little oddball and maybe even turn some people off, so with Oprah giving her endorsement, that really cuts through the odd description on the book cover and will hopefully help the book make its way to more readers.

“When you’re writing about elevator inspectors, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have a lot of mass appeal.”

In an article about the craft of writing, you wrote: “Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration.” With that in mind, can you share how this book found you?
Just to clarify, that was for a parody article about writing advice, but like any writing cliché, there is a bit of truth in it.

I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.” But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. I had the idea for a novel, but the narrator was very similar to the narrator in my previous book, The Noble Hustle, a sort of wise-cracking depressive. And rather than repeat myself, I decided to challenge myself and do the book I found scary to do. When I floated the idea out to people, they seemed really excited about it in a way that was new, so I thought that seemed like it was an idea worth pursuing. Update shell shockers new version.

Given that The Noble Hustle was about your real-life experiences competing in the 2011 World Series of Poker, would you say that it had you in the mindset to take a gamble?
I guess you could say that! But really, every book is a gamble. Can I pull it off? Will the idea defeat me? Am I up to the task? There’s always that kind of fear about what you’re about to take on. Figuring out how to overcome it and sidestep the danger and fear is important.

You start as a snake wondering around to collect all kinds of orbs. Once you become bigger, encircle and defeat other players.
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